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Exercise for Depression: How It Helps

Being physically active should be part of depression treatment, experts say.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Five years ago, after ending a long-term relationship, Anita became seriously depressed. It benched the once-physically active writer, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy.

She stopped running and began gaining weight and falling out of shape. It was not the first time she had been depressed, and traditional therapy had not helped her as much as she had hoped. This time, she sought out someone different. She found Jane Baxter, PhD, a therapist who was able to get her moving again, mentally and physically.

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Baxter, who is based in Washington, D.C., has a unique background and practice. She is a psychologist and a certified personal trainer. When Anita showed up for her first appointment, Baxter eschewed the couch in favor of a treadmill.

"She’s a mental health trainer and a physical trainer," says Anita, 46.

That combination may sound unusual, but recent research shows that exercise may be one of the best treatments for mild to moderate depression.

"Every day, there is more and more evidence," says Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John J. Ratey, MD, the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. "There are very good placebo control studies comparing antidepressants and exercise, and the effect on mood is the same."

In one 2005 study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise five days a week reduced symptoms of depression by nearly half after 12 weeks.

Although Ratey holds that exercise is an effective treatment for depression, that doesn’t mean he thinks that all patients should give up their medication or talk therapy in favor of working out.

"I’m not opposed to medication," he says. "And when someone is very depressed, you want everything going [to treat that person]."

Up and Running

Anita, who takes the antidepressant Wellbutrin in addition to the talk therapy/workouts she does with Baxter, had always been accustomed to doing intense workouts. But, she says, "when the depression hit, I had no energy."

Baxter’s program helped her regain it. Anita says her workouts with Baxter were gentle and subtle, but, crucially, they were what got her moving again. She found herself wanting to work out on her own, and she began running again; she also started lifting weights. She has lost 30 pounds in the past year.

"My work with Jane helped me get accustomed to going out and being physically active again," Anita says.

Baxter says that is a common response to her program. In fact, many of her patients join a gym and even hire a second personal trainer.

Though she also does traditional talk therapy, about half of her patients opt for the program she calls PsychFit.

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